If one defines “terrorism” as an attempt by a particular group to achieve a major long-term political change or goal, through acts of individual murder and sabotage, then one can find numerous instances of this kind of endeavor in the 20th century.
For example, there is the Serbian Black Hand Society, which for several years had a goal to create Greater Serbia, and to achieve that end brought about the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on July 28, 1914, which ultimately led to the First World War. That is possibly the most significant act of terrorism in history. One could also cite the Irish Republican Army and its long struggle against Northern Ireland and England, the Mau Mau in Kenya, the Hukbalahop in the Philippines — all major terrorist movements of the last century. We ended the last century with the development of Islamic terrorism.
However active terrorist groups have been in the 20th century, that century is not the fountain of modern terrorism. The headwaters of modern terrorism can arguably be found in mid-19th tsarist Russia, and an examination of that history tells us that the war on terrorism is a marathon and not a sprint.
From the beginning of the 19th century, radical groups emerged in Russia with the desire to overthrow the regime. A major revolt occurred in December 1825, but it failed miserably, and its leaders were exiled or executed. After several decades of radicalism confined mainly to the salon, radicals took on a new personality in the 1860s as they shifted tactics from conversation to action and set about to wage an aggressive, long-drawn-out struggle against the tsarist regime, which ended with the Russian Revolution. These new actors on the scene assumed the sobriquet of “nihilist.”
The first attempt to put this new aggressive attitude into effect occurred in 1866, when nihilist Dmitri Karakazov, a down-on-his-luck student, attempted to kill the tsar, something no commoner had attempted in more than 500 years. Karakazov was associated with a secret organization known as Hell. This group was disbanded by the tsarist government.
By the late 1860s, the nihilists subdivided into anarchists and the largest and longest-lived radical group called the Populists (later known as Social Revolutionaries).
In 1869, the anarchist Sergei Nechaev, in conjunction with the founder of anarchism, Mikhail Bakunin, wrote “Catechism of a Revolutionary,” stressing that revolutionaries must be professional, dedicated and disciplined:
“The Revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no interests, no affairs, no feelings, no attachments of his own. … Everything in him is wholly absorbed by one sole, exclusive interest … revolution. He must train himself to stand torture and be ready to die. … The laws, the conventions, the moral code of civilized society have no meaning to him. … To him whatever promotes the triumph of the revolution is moral, whatever hinders it is criminal.”
Does that describe the values and principles of the members of al-Qaida? Does the commitment to sharia law come to mind?
The anarchist cause, however, was not very successful in Russia. Nechaev was arrested and tried for murder, and his small group was absorbed into the growing movement of populism. His extremist commitment to the revolutionary cause did, however, manage to inspire many young adherents of revolution.
Populism became something of a mass movement in Russia by the 1870s, producing thousands of young people seeking change in Russia. After many young revolutionaries went into the countryside to mobilize the peasants against the tsar, the government cracked down and sent many to prison.
This in turn inspired further reaction on the part of the revolutionaries, with the killing of government officials, an attack on the tsar’s life and finally, in 1879, the shooting and serious wounding of the head of police in St. Petersburg. This incident led to a further crackdown on the populists and exemplifies the paradigm of terrorism in tsarist Russia — an attack on the state prompting a crackdown by the state.
This crackdown convinced the radicals to try even harder to overthrow the government and make a serious effort to assassinate the tsar, and on Sept. 7, 1879, the radical branch of the Populists condemned Alexander II to death. The radicals managed to blow up a part of the Winter Palace in February 1880, killing 10 people and wounded 56, but the tsar was not injured.
This predictably led to another crackdown on the radicals, but although their numbers were under very heavy pressure from the tsarist police, they nonetheless managed to assassinate the Alexander II — the tsar who freed the serfs — on March 1, 1881.
Ironically, before embarking on his Sunday morning carriage ride, the tsar had signed a proclamation providing for a legislative assembly to be elected by the people. This quasi-constitution never saw the light of day because his son, Alexander III, a staunch defender of the monarchy, refused to publish it and Russia remained an absolutist state.
The murder of the tsar led to an additional crackdown on the radicals/terrorists, and the plotters of the assassination were arrested and hanged.
While the government enjoyed a respite and radicalism went into something of a dormant period for the 1880s, it still managed to survive. For example, in the mid-1880s, several young students, including Lenin’s brother, were tried and executed for plotting to kill Alexander III. Lenin’s brother, a chemistry major, had been asked to build a bomb.
In addition, a major new radical/terrorist element joined the fray, the Russian Social Democrat Labor Party — a Marxist party — began to wage its own campaign against the tsarist regime.
By the 1890s, a wing of the Populist Party had morphed into a group called the Social Revolutionaries, whose main goal was to use murder and mayhem to bring down the tsarist government.
From 1901, acts of terror/murder were a commonplace occurrence in Russian life. Not counting the number of attempts to kill minor officials across Russia, two ministers of interior, two governors of two provinces and a grand duke, the tsar’s uncle, were assassinated between 1901 and 1905. The Social Revolutionaries’ terror campaign managed to kill 1,400 tsarist officials in 1906 and another 3,000 in 1907. In 1906, they blew up the prime minister’s home, killing 32 people. They finally managed to kill the prime minister in 1911.
The Bolsheviks, such as Stalin, contributed to the discombobulation by robbing banks and organizing worker strikes.
Unfortunately, all this terrorist activity ultimately proved successful, with the assumption of power by Lenin and the Bolshevik wing of the Social Democratic Party in 1917.
Beginning in 1866, tsarist Russia waged a struggle to fend off an assault by persons seeking to overthrow the political structure of the country. After approximately 51 years, the terrorists succeeded. No matter how many times the tsarist government succeeded in cutting off the head of radical leadership, new leaders emerged. No matter how many times the government put terrorism into “remission,” it always reappeared. And very sadly, for Russia, for Europe, and for the World, in the end terror — the Bolsheviks — won out.
If history is guide, then the story of tsarist Russia has meaning for our current struggle with Islamic terrorism, and that is that we are in for an ongoing struggle that may be years before we arrive at a denouement.
From the Oman Abdel Rahman bombing of the World trade Center in 1993, to the bombing of the U.S. embassies in 1998, to the 9/11 tragedy, to the murder of four embassy employees in Benghazi in 2012 and al-Qaida moves in Algeria, Yemen and Mali, we are in for the long haul.
The execution of al-Qaida leaders, such as Osama Bin Laden, has not and will not end the war with Islamic terrorism any more than imprisonment and execution of terrorist leaders succeeded in tsarist Russia. Bin Laden may be dead, but al-Qaida clearly is not, as the recent abduction of foreigners in Algeria and resultant loss of life demonstrate.
We have been at this about 20 years. Compared to the Russian experience, we have a long way to go, and the moral is very clear: Kill one, another will appear. The leadership is not the critical issue; it is the cause that will continue to produce new leaders. Thus, no matter how many leaders of al-Qaida we destroy, new leadership will emerge.
Sit back and be prepared for a very bumpy ride. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
James Y. Simms Jr. is emeritus professor of Russian and modern European history at Hampden-Sydney College.